Global Insights: South Korea Does Not Need Nuclear Weapons

Global Insights: South Korea Does Not Need Nuclear Weapons

One of the issues newly inaugurated South Korean President Park Geun-hye will need to address is the demands from a growing faction of her own party for either the United States to return tactical nuclear weapons to the South or for Seoul to develop its own nuclear arsenal. In light of the apparently successful Feb. 12 North Korean nuclear test, this faction believes that Seoul needs a similar nuclear capability to deter potential North Korean military threats.

Extended deterrence of the kind the U.S. currently provides South Korea requires that the guarantor has the capacity to defend the country threatened with attack and the intent to do so, and that this capacity and intent are perceived as sufficiently strong that a potential aggressor decides to refrain from belligerent acts. But as the growing calls for a South Korean nuclear option illustrate, the state receiving the guarantee must also perceive it as credible.

During the Cold War, the United States stationed hundreds of nuclear weapons in South Korea. At times, South Korean governments contemplated and even started nuclear weapons programs, though U.S. pressure always led Seoul to abandon them in the past. While the Pentagon withdrew all its nuclear weapons from South Korea two decades ago, the United States continues to pledge to defend South Korea with nuclear weapons if necessary. Yet, the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, the rising power of China and the Obama administration’s policy of generally de-emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons in world politics has led some South Korean security experts to question the credibility of U.S. extended security guarantees to defend South Korea from external threats using whatever means necessary.

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